When I was in Malawi in 2009, I had a funny thought: life is a people sandwich. How you build your sandwich - your combination of meats, cheeses, and toppings - determines the taste. This is also the case with life. The people you use to fill your sandwich determine what kind of experience you have.
I figured I’d take a moment to talk about the people who’ve made my sandwich a hearty one. I’ve talked a lot about what I’ve been doing and it’s about time I talk about who have been doing it with me. After all, it’s the people that matter in the end. Be warned, it’s a pretty big sandwich.
If we all returned to our rooms at the ashram, the first porch would be shared by the room of Nico and Emily next to Asha and Lexi.
Nico Slate was one of the first professors I interacted with at CMU. I took a seminar class with him my first semester on Barack Obama and the history of race in America and ever since then I’ve done everything I could to take his classes. A definite mentor in my life, he’s colored my CMU experience with optimism, big ideas and even bigger dreams. He was the architect behind the semester and we all wouldn’t be here without his enthusiasm.
Emily Mohn Slate, his better half, shared the room with him. A professor in English, Emily came a little late to Doha but immediately gelled with the group. She has a tremendous talent to provide useful feedback and appreciate diversity of thought. She also has a background in advising students and watching her help people through applications, cover letters and next steps is a treat. I faced off with her in a game of langdi and she was a tough foe. I caught her, but also completely ate it. She has a few posts up on a blog here.
Next door to Nico and Emily, you’d find Asha and Lexi’s room. I took a class with Asha (one of Nico’s, actually) a year ago but didn’t really interact with her until this trip. Within a week in Doha, I completely laid into an organization (Invisible Children) that was a big part of her experiences in high school and she not only took it in stride, but she used the conversation to think bigger and constructively. I really admire that about her. She shares a bit of my philosophy of pragmatic optimism so it’s been really useful to have her to bounce ideas around with. She’s shared some of her thoughts here.
Her roommate, Lexi, was another unknown to me before the trip. What I’ve found over the last few months is that Lexi can be really quiet, but when she does share something it’s often something that’s worth a listen. A budding poet, I’ve really enjoyed hearing her share her work with all of us. As someone terrified of others reading my writing - yes you, reader - I can identify. Seeing her interact with the kids at the Vision Leadership camp was a true pleasure: she has a knack for getting a group involved.
A few feet away is another porch shared by Greg, Wesley and I. Greg is the CFO of Visions, an NGO that runs leadership and empowerment trainings for kids in South Asia. During our stay in Wardha, Greg was really there just as back-up but when we came to Chennai to do the leadership training camp I saw a whole other side of him. He’s a pro at what he does and I could see how alive he was doing what he loved. One of my favorite things he shared with me was that you never know how you will impact people you work with. The kids we spent time with at the Visions camp came from a Dalit background (the untouchable caste) and Greg shared with us that even a touch - a high-five, a hug, a playful shove - could mean the world. It made me rethink the idea of impact and also relates to my idea of the non-possession of good. More on Visions here.
Next door to Greg was my room, where Wesley and I shared a room. Wesley is outwardly kind and social. It was fun watching him instantly make friends in Doha in a new culture and it requires special talent to do that. More importantly than that is listening to him take deep dives of thought in our group discussions. My favorite moment so far, though, was watching him help Greg, who flew out of Chennai this past Monday, get packed and make it through a bout of food poisoning right before his flight.
Leaving our porch and continuing down the row of rooms, you’d find the next porch, shared by the rooms of Marcy and Molly next to Marielle and Mariem. Marcy is a jokester. We have a very distinct dynamic where we can riff off each other and there is no drop of energy. Marcy is also one of the most sincere people I’ve met and brings a light with her wherever she goes. I will always remember the dance parties in Mohanji’s car in Wardha, where she put awesome tunes on a USB to play on the sound system. In a perfect goodbye to our stay there, on the way to the airport we were stuck at a railroad crossing and we all got out of the car for an impromptu dance party. (There’s a video somewhere…) Marcy is really into photography and you’ll always see her finding a good photo. Right now she has a few up on her blog here.
Molly would be in the room with Marcy. They have a really unique energy together because Molly is silly like Marcy but not with the same high energy. She’s incredibly thoughtful and has helped me through being sick a few times during the trip. She also possesses the almost impossible ability to challenge people without being disrespectful. I’m pretty awful at that and would do well to take some notes from her. She jumps into things without fear and I wish everyone could have seen her simultaneously learn business concepts and then empower women to discuss them in various workshops our group led.
Next door to the two M’s was another set of M’s: Mariem and Marielle. Mariem is a student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus in Doha and joined us for the semester. She was there from the very beginning, greeting us all at the Doha airport and has been a fantastic asset to the team. She has so much to share about her experiences in Tunisia and Doha and I often feel like I’ve only cracked the surface of it all with my pestering about the Arab Spring. Mariem is also incredibly graceful under pressure and pain: the other weekend she dislocated her shoulder and endured it with a calm and collected demeanor.
Marielle is Mariem’s roommate. I’d taken some Spanish classes with her but didn’t know that much about her outside of the classroom. She’s passionate about water and its pervasive role in our daily lives. She has also taught me a lot about the philosophy of art. She comes from an artistic background, ended up studying biology and then switched to global studies but maintains that art is good for everyone, even if you’re terrible at it. I think that’s a really worthwhile perspective. She also has a curious mind and asks a lot of important questions in our group discussions and I love hearing about her stories about growing up abroad. You can read her blog focusing on water here.
Keep heading further back and you’d reach the last porch of the team, shared by Manasi, Marie and Tahirah. I took a class with Marie last semester and then we found out we were both going to India, so there’s been some continuity this year. Marie is a fierce family member and talks about all her family with very obvious love and care, especially her nieces and nephews. She’s carried that same intensity into her work mentoring in Pittsburgh and I’ve enjoyed watching her in action here in India. At the Visions camp she was in my group and had a useful line of thought: if the kids are enjoying it, then it’s okay to be hands off sometimes. It was a worthy reminder as I tend to be very engaged.
Tahirah has also been in the classroom with me because we share the same major of International Relations and Politics. One of the things I really admire about her is her honesty and it’s been put to good use in our discussions on how to do meaningful work in the various places we’ve traveled. She has a tremendous eye for a good photograph but an even better one for the right word. I’ll never forget the night where we all came together to share something - a song we like, something we wrote, something about ourselves, etc. - and Tahirah read a flash fiction piece she wrote. When she finished reading it to the group, we all had a collective pause and then burst into applause.
Next door to Marie and Tahirah was Manasi, who was our tireless translator for our time in Wardha. Manasi has a really quiet nature to her, is unafraid to laugh at herself and slow to judge any of us for our excitement with the exotic. It should go without saying, but Manasi was fantastic at translating. It takes a unique person to convey the powerful stories of the people we met - the women, volunteers, beneficiaries of projects - and then to tell to everyone in the group. It requires that you listen with every fiber (she’s mastered the art) and then commit yourself to the colossal task of sharing everything you’ve heard. Time and time again, she succeeded and opened the door to many beautiful stories in Wardha. She also put up with me asking her a lot of questions (I like to ask random questions to people to see what they’ll say) and by the end of the trip I created the Manasi Rule, which gave her 24 hours to answer a question because I wanted to give her time to think about it. Manasi’s time with us was temporary like Greg’s, but she was a huge part of our time in Wardha.
There’s many more people in this sandwich, but these were the ones who were more or less in the “group”. I think I’ll have to share another sandwich at the end of the trip with all the people I’ve met along the way, but looking at this one, it becomes pretty obvious that I’ve had a complex and fulfilling meal with me all along.
Life is a people sandwich. Take a bite.